Chasing Truth (Part II): From the Experts

This story follows Chasing Truth: Part I. “From the Experts” explores insights from professionals in the plastics industry on Taiwan’s recycling situation.

 

Limited by the Market

“People don’t know about the health effects of plastic,” Zack said, as he leaned forward against the table, his white collared shirt rolled back at the sleeves. A red lanyard hung loosely from his neck– the attached clip-on name card identified him as the company’s Technology Development Manager.

“I have a one-year-old son,” he continued, “so now in my home, we don’t buy anything that is harmful and non-recyclable. Since I know that bad plastic can cause harm to my child, I don’t use it.

“Me and my Dad both have a certain kind of environmental awareness. Working in this industry, we both know that bentous [food containers] cannot yet be recycled in Taiwan [because they are lined with wax], so I just throw it away as general garbage.

“I know if I sort it into the “paper” recycling bin, [it’ll taint the other paper material and] all the other papers won’t be as pure anymore, making them unrecyclable. We know about this, so we do it, but we are not able to influence others. We can only do what we can do.”

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Their Truth

Outside the Chunghua Plastics conference room, the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and everything seemed so far removed from the small building in the middle of the Taoyuan countryside. I had come across the company via guanxi (關係)- the ‘he knows her-who knows her-who knows him’ string of relationships- to learn about the technology and woman-power producing plastic molds for electronic modems and routers.

“The reality is there are different kinds of plastics, and people just don’t know.”

“Now you think that we sort garbage quite well,” Zack continued, “but in the past we did not. This change occurred because the government asked everyone to sort garbage, otherwise you’d get fined. Taiwanese people are afraid of being fined, so they started doing it.” [Improper sorting of trash can result in a fine between NT $1,200 – NT$6,000, equivalent to USD $40 – $200.]

“In Taipei City, for instance, people have to buy plastic bags for garbage, so they feel like they’re being charged. Money is important to Taiwanese people, so they feel bad about being charged for throwing out their garbage. They only feel that the government is making money from them. Taipei City government is like selling more expensive plastic bags to them. But in truth, they have to pay for plastic bags, so the amount of garbage can be reduced.”

I reflected on this statement for a moment. The issue of trust and faith in the institution flared up again. What I initially thought was a nonpolitical issue was suddenly showing signs of historical mistrust and deep-seated anger. I tested the waters with my next question.

Taiwan EPA Minister Ying-Yuan Lee at the International Environmental Partnership (IEP) Conference on Circular Economy. – Taipei, Taiwan (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

“When I interviewed Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration Minister Lee and his team of top waste management public officials, they expressed that the greatest challenge they faced was getting people to know, and believe, that they are doing the right thing. Not just something, but the right thing.

“But on my way here, I spoke to a cab driver who doesn’t believe that the government is doing what it says it’s doing. He felt wronged. What about you? Do you believe in the waste management system– that they’re doing what they say they’re doing?”

“Yes, we do, at least to some extent.”

I nodded in response. “So then, what is the most difficult part for you?”

Zack answered. “Truth. Some people think it’s good to do recycling, and they are happy to do it. But they do not know those labeled recyclable products end up as waste and can even can be harmful to the environment. We do not know if a product can really be recycled; we only hear what others are saying.”

There is no truth. We hear what our friends say, what the government says, what the businessmen say, but all those are not objective, not just.

“That is why we need media like National Geographic,” he finished, looking directly at me.  

I paused for a moment to take in what he had just said. The responsibility to tell the truth fell to me. People would believe me, because I carried the National Geographic brand. 

Suddenly, it was less about a magazine filled with cool photos than a media brand whose work represented objectivity, truth, and neutrality in an atmosphere of fake news and bipartisanship.

Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine Taiwan at the annual Nat Geo anniversary, December 1, 2017. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

I took a deep breath to process my thoughts. “I feel like I have a huge responsibility, so I want to do this right.” The notion of truth, the limitations of what I saw, the desire to uphold people’s faith in the brand and in my work, all suddenly dawned on me.

“I recognize that I am a foreigner here, and what I write has the potential to influence the way people perceive and think about Taiwan. One misunderstanding, one thing I don’t see, can lead me to write something that may not be true. I’m acutely aware of this power and process, so I want to talk to as many people as possible to uncover the truth, the real truth.”

They nodded. Silence filled the space.

I realized the seriousness of my position. People placed their faith in National Geographic, and that in return placed a large responsibility on me, on us, to not betray that trust. The question of discerning truth from a pool of mixed messages and seemingly opposing narratives seemed daunting, if not, impossible. But I knew that this is what I needed to do. This is why I was here.

From the Experts

The conversation continued for a total of three hours, split between the conference room and factory floor. We spoke at great length about the recycling system in Taiwan, the challenges and frustrations, innovations and inabilities– all perspectives on a system where ambiguity, complexity, and frustration color the very foundation of the subject.

Below are snippets from our exchange. Note that in discussing such a multi-faceted and constantly evolving topic, some statements may not be 100% representative of the current behemoth of waste management; however, they reflect the perspective and experience of the people interviewed at the time. I believe sharing these statements adds to the rich discussion on where Taiwan is and where it can improve in terms of waste management and recycling. So here you go– from them to you.


Little Control

The industry in Taiwan is more like Original Equipment Manufacturer, “OEM,” so we simply make the product. We aren’t able to control how the product is designed. [Before they come to us] many companies have already decided what design and materials they want us to use. 

“Chung Hua Plastics is an OEM company in this system, so all we can do is to try to reduce waste in the manufacturing process.”

You Need to Separate Materials

The beverage shops usually provide paper cups or plastic cups. Pure plastic cups [composed entirely of one type of plastic] might be easier to recycle rather than paper cups, for there might be wax or films attached to the paper cups. You have to separate the interior plastic film and outside paper cup in order to recycle them properlyTweet this, but so far in Taiwan, people do not do it properly. Taiwan has been claiming itself as the “Kingdom of Recycling,” but in this area, we do not do very well. You could only separate those materials by going to the public recycling factory.

Checking the status – The machine, assembly line, and engineer. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)
Mostly Private Firms

Approximately 60% of recycling companies in Taiwan are private organizations, not belonging to the government. They are not able to reach every corner and separate films from papers, so most of the paper cups end up as garbage. The paper box for bentous (便當), for example, may not be recycled either, since they are lined with wax. 

Waste management, including recycling, is a business, and in the end, their concern is still to reduce cost in order to gain maximum benefit. So they may not have the financial means or inclination to buy expensive machines capable of actually separating the materials for recycling purposes.

The Taiwanese government says it can separate the different ingredients (wax, film, paper) layered in cups, bowls, wrappers, but actually many private recycling companies do not have the kind of technology to do so. Then, there is still pollution.

So while a lot people may think that they are recycling well because they are bringing recycling materials to the recycling factory, the reality is, this action is not enough, for the factories might just burn the garbage without recycling it. But most people do not know about this.

PET (#1) plastics, on the other hand, have the highest recycling value, and are therefore regularly sought after in recycling stations. PET plastics can easily be recycled into polyester to make clothes or blankets or other common materials.

Hybrid Plastics

Raw material factories are now collecting post-consumption “waste materials” and adding virgin resources to produce a hybrid plastic with 70% virgin and 30% recycled material. They call it eco-friendly plastic. 

We have many clients now who are asking us to use this hybrid material. We think it is good and hope in the future that this kind of material would be more. But every time you recycle plastics, the quality of the source decreases.

You can use the material 100% the first time, then once its recycled, only 30% of it can be reused in order to maintain quality the second time. But then, the third time the material is recycled and reused, it has to be thrown away because its quality has downgraded.

The truth is often messy, not straight forward, and unclear. But the process of discovery requires listening, openness & dedication. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

A Complex System, An Unclear Truth

Taiwan is home to a massive ecosystem of small and medium-sized plastic manufacturers, assemblers and producers. Family businesses operate in a complex web of relationship-reliant supply chains with implications that reach far beyond the domestic market.

In reality, it too is a system driven by money.

But trash, recycling, and plastics are tricky issues because there are many different perspectives on what’s actually happening in the system.

Ultimately, truth is colored by our experiences and expertise, accessibility to data and tested sources; what we see and what we know; what we hold true and what we believe. And in the end, you can argue that we all hold our own versions of the truth.

What I’ve learned, however, is that it is the job of the storyteller to discover and share those truths in an objective way, and confront the complexity with great care and unwavering courage. This is my role. This is my job. And this is what I will continue to do.

——-

Part three will explore the history of Taiwan’s plastic industry and present another view on plastic use in our lives. 

A special thanks to Ms. Sophie Chang for translating the Chinese audio of this interview into English. I couldn’t have captured the exact sentiments and fine details without you! 

Changing Planet, Human Journey

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Lillygol Sedaghat is a multi-media environmental journalist and speaker focusing on the intersection among science, systems, and people. Previously, she was a Fulbright–National Geographic Digital Storyteller documenting Taiwan’s waste management system, plastics recycling and circular economy initiatives. She is an active contributor to National Geographic's Planet or Plastic? global campaign and creates music videos, info-graphics, and maps to transform people's perceptions of trash from something disposable to something valuable. Lillygol has spoken at UN World Environment Day, Influence Nation Summit DC, and National Geographic on her research. She completed a B.A. in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley and was named 5 Under 25: Leaders in U.S.-China Relations.